HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

May 21, 2007
From Liberty Street

Religion and Terror

John Turner


Mark Juergensmeyer’s Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence is a disturbing book. It is based on extensive interviews with a great number of people who have either committed violent acts or advocated them in the name of religion. He presents convincing evidence of why they think and act as they do. But that’s not why the book is disturbing.

The frightening thing about Juergensmeyer’s account is his contention that sane people, moderate people, reasonable people have no well-grounded argument to counter the actions of violent religious fanatics. At various points in his text he writes of “the mindless humiliation of modern life,” “the superficial values of the modern world,” the fickle behavior of modern populations in awarding moral authority to various forces, the loss of faith in secular nationalism,  the project of modernity being the simple accretion of power and possessions. Though he says near the beginning of his book that an attempt to understand religious violence in no way implies agreement with it, and though he makes clear throughout that he doesn’t agree and that he finds it horrifying, he leaves readers nonetheless with a sense that he, to some degree, respects the people who are willing to sacrifice their own and other people’s lives for a religious cause. And why? Because they, regardless of how wacky they might be, have something they are living and fighting for whereas their supposedly legitimate opponents have nothing. Juergensmeyer’s book is ostensibly about the nature of religious terrorism, but it’s actually about the retreat of defensible authority from the conventional world.

He outlines programs of violence among American and Irish Protestants, Islamic radicals, Jewish visionaries, and Sikh rebels in India and finds them all remarkably similar. They are all in revolt against modern secularism and the style of living it produces, they all believe they have a secure contact with ultimate truth, they all think they are serving something more important than mere human existence, and they believe that they are engaged in a cosmic conflict between good and evil which may well require generations to be resolved. Furthermore they despise the secular traitors in their own ranks more than they do enemies from opposing cultures.

In interviews with Maumud Abouhalima at the federal penitentiary at Lompoc, California, where he is serving a 240 year sentence for having participated in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Juergensmeyer was told that modern secular people have no souls and, consequently, that what happens to them is not of much account. They are simply empty and whether they live a greater or lesser number of years doesn’t matter. 

Another of Juergensmeyer’s principal characters, Abdul Aziz Rantisi, a founder of Hamas, explained to the author during an interview at Rantisi’s home in Gaza, that suicide bombings -- which he insisted should be called self-chosen martyrdom -- are justified because the Palestinians are at war with the the Israeli people and, therefore, there are no innocent victims. No one is innocent in a war of one people against another. The notion that war provides a moral rationale for acts that would otherwise be considered hideous is echoed not only throughout the radical religious groups that Juergensmeyer investigated but among their opponents as well. The magical power of war to turn egregious wrongs into right seems to be a delusional belief that exerts its power over everyone who has convinced himself that he is engaged in a cosmic conflict, where evil and good are up for grabs. And the notion that certain conflicts are cosmic do not operate only in marginal religious groups but,nowadays, are proclaimed from established centers of power. In that respect, at least, most of the world seems to have become religiously radicalized.

Indeed, Juergensmeyer’s most powerful thesis is that when enemies have become satanized, no possibility of peaceful resolution exists. The enemy, or opponent, is worthy of no respect or humane treatment. They are people without person-hood, devoid of soul, rightly described as “mud people” in the language of certain American right-wing religious groups. Thus, when the enemy is demonized the conflict can’t end, unless the mythological beliefs of the combatants are redirected, or one side or the other has been destroyed.

It isn't a pretty picture of the world situation that Juergensmeyer paints for us, and he has no convincing cure for the ravages of murderous religious passion. He cannot imagine a world without religion and so at the end of his book he calls for some kind of accommodation between religious faith and the values of secular Enlightenment. But he tells us nothing of what that accommodation might be or how we could begin to take steps towards it.

Bleakness, however, is not a reason for dismissal. We can’t expect scholars to tell us how to proceed, and if they tell us as much truth as Juergensmeyer has they deserve our respect. Without knowing where we are it’s unlikely that we can get to anywhere else.


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